A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece in response to the ridiculousness surrounding the casting of Aladdin and Jasmine for Disney’s live action adaptation. I thought after that article I had nothing more to say. Then Disney announced the full cast… And I realized I want a trailer. So here’s a roundup and thoughts on the finalized lead cast. (The extras better be diverse too!)
As stated in my last article, Aladdin was always going to be a problem. Disney’s amalgam of India and the Middle East, racist depictions of the men, and the sexism around Jasmine made for a crappy source text.
Then Disney announced Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) as the director for the script written by John August (Charlie’s Angels). Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones) is now editing it. Not a single SA/ME person on the production team. That and the statement that they couldn’t find the right person for either role had me rolling my eyes.
When Egyptian Mena Massoud and British-Gujarati Naomi Scott were finally cast, I like many others was excited. Except, South Asians and Arabs started shouting at each other over stolen roles. As if the movie had been a bastion of positive representation in the first place? My reaction to that is in my prior piece. The takeaway is that the original source text for this remake was never going to lead to positive representation. The entire premise is a racist and sexist hodge-podge of South Asian and Arab influences! Adding a diverse cast representative of South Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African backgrounds is only the first step.
That diverse cast includes Tunisian-Dutch Marwan Kenzari as Jafar. Iranian Navid Negahban stars as the Sultan and Iranian Nasim Pedrad is Dalia. She portrays Princess Jasmine’s hand maiden and confidante, newly created for the film. Turkish Numan Acar is Hakim, Jafar’s right-hand man and head of the palace guards. America’s own Will Smith portrays the Genie.
A new character, Prince Anders, (Lithuanian Billy Magnussen) is a suitor from Skanland (a city in Norway). I bet that he replaces Prince Achmed who tried to marry Jasmine in the original. Unlike everyone else who is angry about his addition, if he stays a potential suitor and actual romantic rival for Aladdin, I think having a token white dude is great!
I’m also excited that Jasmine gets to talk to someone outside of a tiger who might not even be in the film. None of the animal characters have been mentioned in casting yet.
At the end of the day, with a talented cast from all over the world and a production team behind various past hits, the movie should be okay. Add in good music (Alan Menken), hopefully, respectful costuming and links to various source cultures, Aladdin should be an enjoyable film for all audiences.
Now we just need a trailer to really start analyzing.
Images courtesy of Will Smith, Walt Disney, NBC
‘Black Panther’ Is Rich, Complex, and Fun
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther feels less like an installment in the Marvel franchise and more like a whole story unto itself. The movie hums along blissfully without mentions of infinity stones or hints to other threats to come at a later date. It concerns itself with the characters it has and the world it inhabits.
Black Panther behaves unlike any other Marvel movie; not it’s structure, but in it’s very behavior. As the movie opens up we hear a father talking to his son about the origins of Wakanda reminding us that stories like most things, are past down through the generations. Coogler allows the movie to amble along as if the entire story is being told by previous generations. In some ways it is.
T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) father has died, making him the new King of Wakanda. There is an ocean of difference between being a Prince and a King and T’Challa is forced to swim that divide. Part of what Coogler, who co-wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole, does is take time to thoroughly build the world of Wakanda. I feel like I understand Coogler’s Wakanda much more than I do Asgard, Metropolis, Gotham City, or even Marvel’s version of New York.
We are allowed to witness royal ceremonies, which like all royal ceremonies, is part bureaucratic and partly just that, ceremonial. In order for T’Challa to become King he must fight the chosen warrior of the other tribes. Yet, when the time comes no tribe puts forth a warrior. But lest we think T’Challa’s reign would go smoothly, a challenger appears M’Baku (Winston Duke). Of course since the movie is called Black Panther and Boseman’s name and face is on the poster, we know who will win this fight.
What Coogler does though, is throughout all this, show us the personalities, and customs, of all involved. We see the loyal Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the advisor to the throne and keeper of traditions, and his love and loyalty to T’Challa. Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s little sister, watches on in horror, wishing she could help her brother out in some way. Though her technological advancements and inventions have put Wakanda light years ahead of the rest of the world, she can do nothing to help him now. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), his friend and right hand man, watches on, but we get the sense there are cracks in his devotion.
Black Panther isn’t about the Black Panther so much as it is about Wakanda. For much, if not all, of the second act, Boseman’s T’Challa is off-screen. His mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is forced to flee Wakanda with her daughter and T’Challa’s close friend and ex, Nakia (Lupita Nyongo). Nakia is Wakanda’s foremost expert on espionage and intelligence gathering; a spy and damn good one. Ramonda, Nakia, and Shuri are as much the stars of Black Panther as Boseman himself. I haven’t even mentioned T’Challa’s general Okoye (Danai Gurria) the fierce and loyal head of the Dora Milaje. The Dora Miljae are an all woman special forces that serve as T’Challa’s bodyguard.
Okoye has one of my favorite lines in the film. During a riveting car chase where she, Nakia, Shuri, and T’Challa, are chasing Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis) his henchmen open fire on Okoye. “Guns? How primitive.” One of the many joys of Black Panther is how strictly adheres to its political themes and beliefs.
If Okoye had uttered the line about guns and then the climactic battle been a gun fight, Black Panther would feel cheap and hollow. It would be just another action movie from Marvel studios. But when the climatic battles does happen it is without guns, the climactic battle incidentally is one of the few battles that feels climatic.
Coogler and Cole have painstakingly shown us each character’s worldview so that we understand why they are fighting on the side they are on. The battle feels immediate because the fate of the world does not hinge in the balance…well, at least not in direct balance. Instead the tension comes from trusts betrayed, friendships shattered, and a country torn asunder by a power mad tyrant N’Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan).
Jordan’s N’Jadaka is a tragic mirror of Boseman’s T’Challa. Both charismatic and driven are haunted by the ghost of their father. N’Jadaka pushes T’Challa to being a hero. Up until this point, T’Challa’s Black Panther has largely been a force for Wakanda. But N’Jadaka argues he should be a force and a champion of black people all around the world, not just Wakanda.
Jordan is mesmerizing as the angry, revenge driven man poisoned by the horrors of his oppressors. N’Jadaka is a searing antidote to the chronic weak villains that plague superhero movies. He is magnetic and fun to watch, but his goal is easily understood. His actions make sense and his arc tragic and moving. His last line is perfect melding of character complexity and thematic meditations that have been running through the whole film.
But the script is clever in that it has Nakia purporting the same world view minus the conquering. She too has seen the hurt and oppression others like her have endured. She pushes T’Challa to allow Wakanda to step out onto the world stage and present its true face. To be a beacon of hope to a faltering world. T’Challa is against both these notions, steeped in his father’s ideas and traditions. Coogler and Coe show us a T’Challa forced to reconcile his father’s vision of Wakanda with his own. Rarely do we see a hero forced to confront his own ideas as opposed to his own actions.
Black Panther is a sumptuous film to both look and listen to. The movie, shot by Rachel Morrison (who also shot Dee Rees’s Mudbound) is bathed in warm earth tones and sumptuous back lighting. Morrison and Coogler present Black Panther as a regal science fiction. Morrison and Coogler gives us a breathtaking Wakanda utilizing patterns and color in varying ways because different tribes have different tastes and cultures. They give us a complete universe to which to explore.
The soundtrack curated by Kendrick Lamar is a breath of fresh air in a genre whose music is forgettable and stale. The music drives Black Panther. It never overwhelms the action or the drama but always compliments it in a way that is never expected. The soundtrack and score add a startling layer of unpredictability in film designed by it’s studio not to be.
Much like Logan, or Wonder Woman, Black Panther shows us a new way of making franchise blockbusters. It has raised the bar. Ryan Coogler has made not just a deeply personal and political big budget comic book movie; he’s also crafted a deeply resonant and thematically complex character exploration. Black Panther is great. It’s not good, or so so, but great.
Image courtesy of Marvel
The Top 5 Essential Movies For Your Collection: Biopics
One of the most asked and debated questions in the cinephile community is “What movies should I own in my DVD collection?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself, so I did as any writer does and decided to make my own list of essential movies one should have in their DVD collection. Notice the words ‘dvd collection’; I’m talking hard copies here. And it’s worth mentioning that these are not the only five movies one should have in your collection; nor is it in any way saying you have to own all five.
My aim with this series is to hopefully introduce you to some essential films you may never have heard of or, even better, cause you to reevaluate the ones you have seen. Lists are useful for helping broaden one’s base of knowledge, organizing one’s thoughts, and starting a discussion, after all.
Each entry in this article series will revolve around a specific genre or topic. Because (thankfully) movies are constantly being made, I had to set a cut-off date. What I consider The Essentials will be made up of films released before 2015.
Films are not facts; they are a series of pleasing lies. Biopics do this more than most. They tend to hew less to facts and historical exploration but rather use the historical figure or incident as an avatar for whatever the filmmaker wishes to explore. People are messy, imperfect things and too many biopics strive to lionize their subjects or make them into saints. The best ones, however, endeavor to peel back the historical facade and explore the murkier aspects of their greatness. Again, these are not the only five but just the five that made my cut.
Again, these are not all the essential movies, just some of them.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is the rare movie where the phrase ‘haunting beauty’ is justified. Those who have seen Dreyer’s silent masterpiece have never forgotten it, nor it’s star Maria Falconetti. Falconetti’s Jeanne d’Arc is, without hyperbole, one of the single greatest performances ever captured on film. One of the great tragedies of the art is The Passion of Joan of Arc is the only movie Falconetti ever did.
Based on the transcripts of the Catholic Church’s trial of Jeanne d’Arc Dreyer strips The Passion of Joan of Arc of any and all artifice. He does this by never giving us an establishing shot. Establishing shots essentially are the shots that give you some idea of what the room or setting looks like. Dreyer and his cameraman Rudolph Mate shot the entire film in close-ups or medium shots.
The result is a movie where we’re never sure where anyone is in relation to anyone else, or even what the courtroom looks like. Dreyer’s reasoning is simple; he cares only about Jeanne d’Arc and her inner light as she stands up to the Church. A deeply spiritual film The Passion of Joan of Arc is a searing look at a woman standing up to a group of men and terrifying them with her belief in herself and her God. Riveting and breathtaking The Passion of the Joan of Arc is breathtaking in its searing interrogation into one woman’s courage of faith.
The Grandmaster (2013)
Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster could be argued, is a minor work, in the master’s filmography. Much like Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee love New York Wong Kar-wai adores his native Hong Kong. The Grandmaster is not only a biopic about Ip Man (Tony Leung) but about Hong Kong itself.
Wong Kar-wai somehow in the midst of all this takes an almost Faulknerian look at grief and love. The Grandmaster is so full of longing, regret, and empathy that you feel you have lived the life as opposed to just watching it. A martial arts movie, The Grandmaster, is never really concerned with the fighting. While there are many fights between Leung’s Ip Man and others, they are mainly done in slow motion. Agonizingly slow motion that is more concerned with the space and time of the movements than the fights themselves. Wong Kar-wai follows Ip Man as he grows in status and legend while also following his relationship with Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi).
Typical of Wong Kar-wai, The Grandmaster isn’t a streamlined movie. He skips ahead a few seconds, minutes, moments, or days. The camera sometimes is off center or focused not just on the character but on the room they are in. Wong Kar-wai’s style of storytelling draws you in just by virtue of keeping you on your toes. The Grandmaster enchants precisely because the scenes never go where we want them to go or expect them to. Instead, the scenes go where they need to go in their own way. Somehow Wong Kar-wai made a biopic, not as good as his other films, but still better than most biopics.
Malcolm X (1992)
The fact that Malcolm X exists at all is somewhat a miracle. Spike Lee himself enjoys much the same reputation as Malcolm in terms of how he is viewed by much of white America; an extremist. The fact that Lee was able to procure funding for this is only magnified when you add in that Lee demanded the three hour run time from the outset. That it was released into theaters at all is an act of almost sheer force of will on the part of Lee.
Malcolm X is an empathic and fair examination of Malcolm’s life. The first hour is Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) the gangster and coke addict, followed by Malcolm the prisoner and devout follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.), to the fiery street preacher dissatisfied with how the war on civil rights was being fought. Eventually, we witness a man realizing the fallacy of his beliefs and his idols. Malcolm X shows Malcolm in a constant state of transition. Rarely are we allowed to see a man as fully as Lee allows us to see Malcolm.
Lee worked with longtime cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. The result is one of the most alive and breathtaking biopics ever committed to film. Lee has always had an in your face style of filmmaking, and with Malcolm X he utilizes his own idiosyncrasies to bring Malcolm X’s own style of preaching into sharp focus. A perfect marriage of subject and author Malcolm X stands not only as one of Lee’s best films but easily one of the single and purest expressions of an artist through his art.
Oliver Stone’s Nixon is a biopic in the same way Shakespeare’s Richard III is. Bombastic and every bit as quixotic as its subject, Nixon is a fever dream of a melodramatic opera. Stone’s Nixon is an act of pure cinema.
Nixon at times can feel overwhelming with its rapid cuts and disjointed narrative. Anthony Hopkins’ transformation into Richard Nixon is remarkable for its lack of physical changes. Merely by hunching his shoulders and changing his voice, Hopkins becomes Richard Milhous Nixon. Other actors have played a perception of Nixon or a sort of nuanced caricature. Hopkins, though, plays Nixon as the hero and the villain of his own tragic comedy.
The irony of Nixon is it at once the most damning look at the Richard Nixon while also the most sympathetic. Stone’s hatred for President Nixon is almost palpable. It is not wholly unbelievable that were he alive today Nixon would return Stone’s hatred. Yet somehow he allows Hopkins’s Nixon the fairest day in court he is likely ever to receive. Stone is well known for his hyperbolic and sometimes manic oppressive, style. Here though it seems he has found the perfect subject to match his own psychosis.
Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is less about the life of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) and more about the demons that haunt his and Scorsese’s psyche. Scorsese shot Raging Bull shortly after trying to commit suicide and going through treatment for addiction. Raging Bull, is less a biopic and more a deeply searing personal therapeutic look into the insecurities that try our souls.
Jake LaMotta is a louse, a mook, and a no good jealous wife beater. DeNiro is unflinching in the portraying the ugliness of LaMotta. A fierceness radiates from his performance, but it’s a facade; underneath is nothing but a child’s need for love. LaMotta’s insecurities cost him his wife Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci).
It is impossible to divorce Raging Bull from Scorsese’s deeply held Catholicism. The fight scenes, filmed in lush black and white, are scored and edited like a ballet. These are not acts of violence, or even stunning sporting tactics. For LaMotta, and for Scorsese, this is contrition, the price that must be paid for their sins. For Scorsese film isn’t art, it’s a form of catechism.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros., United Artists, Bona Film Group, Buena Vista Pictures, Société Générale des Films
Mr. Incredible Struggles to Dad in New Incredibles 2 Teaser
Taking place in the direct aftermath of the first Incredibles movie, The Incredibles 2 sees the Parr family faced with a new threat in the form of a supervillain named The Underminer. While a new benefactor (voiced by Bob Odenkirk!) uses Elastigirl out in the world kicking butt to campaign for the return of supers, Bob Parr is left to deal with their super kids. Including Jack-Jack, who based on this trailer has a ridiculous number of superpowers.
It looks great.
Understandably, there has to be a bit of skepticism over an Incredibles sequel so long after the first. I get it. Long-awaited sequels are iffy at best when it comes to quality. I dare you to watch this and not be excited. It looks incredible. It has all the charm and humor and beautiful animation. The jokes were fantastic all throughout. Pixar hasn’t lost their touch, and I’m so excited. I know the whole “working mother while the dad takes care of the kids” comedy premise isn’t new, but there’s nothing wrong with a cliche when it’s well executed, and I this looks to be very well-executed. Besides, who turns down chances to see Helen Parr do the hero thing?
And if you’re still worried, just remember how good Toy Story 3 was when it was released so long after Toy Story 2. This looks ready to give everyone what they wanted from an Incredibles sequel.
Incredibles 2 hits theaters and IMAX on June 15th.